By Chris Azzopardi
Photos Courtesy of Sundance Institute, Photo by D. Smith.
The same music industry that initially embraced D. Smith when she was presenting as a man turned against her when she transitioned. She lost her house, her car and her music studio. This was 2014, the year Smith, who has produced songs for Lil Wayne, Keri Hilson and Ciara, says she was “forced out of the music industry.”Just seven years after exiting that industry, Smith is making a splash with her directorial film debut at one of the world’s preeminent film festivals. This achievement is even more remarkable considering the director who discovered a passion for filmmaking during the pandemic decided to go DIY for her first film, “Kokomo City.”
The film is an uninhibited, fearlessly sexual documentary that explores what life is like for four Black transgender sex workers — a true watershed moment in trans-centric filmmaking. And this is where Smith’s story gets especially emancipatory: “Kokomo City” just premiered as an official selection of the NEXT section at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival to early critical acclaim. “One of the most exciting non-fiction entries to this year’s Sundance is a radical, on-the-ground pulpit from which four Black trans sex workers talk their shit,” wrote Jacob Oller for Paste Magazine. The site BlackGirlNerds.com called it “transcendent genius.” And to the music industry folks who turned against her — Smith recently completed work on a new song, “Man’s World,” for an album Katy Perry is currently recording. As for her directorial debut, Smith described the experience of being at Sundance with the film as “literally a comeback.”
What happened to you during the era in which you were shut out of the music industry for being transgender?
I was pretty busy as a producer. I was working with a lot of people, and it’s so crazy. I’ve done a lot of hip-hop, and people see me dressed [as a man] one day, and then the next day I’m wearing eyeshadow. And guys, people just didn’t know how to handle it, or they didn’t want to handle it. They were embarrassed. And I was pushed to the side. Phone calls weren’t returned, emails weren’t returned, and I just stopped working. And in less than two years, I completely went broke.
Do you feel there’s an undercurrent of internalized homophobia in the hip-hop world? Even outside that world, there’s a lot of homophobia and transphobia, period. And it sounds like you experienced that.
Oh yeah. Firsthand. But what’s so crazy is that your music has nothing to do with how you present yourself. So the fact that people stopped working with me musically because of the way I started to look as if it affected my music… it actually enhanced my music, because I started to feel more like myself. And it backfired. People literally just stopped calling me for work and caused me to be homeless. So [I’m] kind of getting on my feet now.
And now you’re here at Sundance with your directorial debut. What’re you feeling right now?
Oh, I feel… and this sounds cliché, but I feel tremendously empowered. I also am very aware of my position, and I respect it, but I’ve also worked very hard for it. But I just want to use this energy, this moment where I am, to just keep telling great stories and creating music.
When you say position, what do you mean? Because to me, it seems like even with this movie, you being at Sundance, this was not an easy film to get made.
No, no. I mean, I made it by myself. By position, I mean, I’m being acknowledged for my work. How can I say this without sounding arrogant? I did it by myself, most of it. And that took a lot of my life, my time. And nothing’s guaranteed, right?
So to be acknowledged for something that I’ve done with my talent, my God-given talent… that’s what I mean by my position. I don’t take it for granted, and I understand where I am right now in my life. So I just want to maximize the opportunity and inspire people.
This being your directorial debut, I was curious about the first time that you picked up a camera and what that experience was like for you?
Someone purchased the camera for me and that in and of itself was very moving for me, because this wasn’t a rich person. This is someone that really made a sacrifice to make that happen. And when I got the camera in my hand, I knew something good was going to come out of it.
During the pandemic, I was walking around the city with my phone just taking pictures of different elements or angles in the city, shooting in black and white. And I was inspired to shoot with this technique and movement. And the documentary came to me. I’m thinking, here I am shooting photographs, but I’m broke. It’s like, how can I make this work for me? And also, how can this be something impactful?
How did the idea of spotlighting Black trans sex workers come to you?
Well, I’ve never had to do sex work, but what inspired me was when I was homeless, sleeping on people’s couches for two years. I’m thinking, “Gosh, I have a lot to show for myself. And it’s still not good enough. I have great music to show for myself and a great reputation in the music industry. And it still wasn’t enough.” People judged me and disconnected from me because of my identity. And I started to think about trans women and how difficult is it for them that don’t even have the amount of talent that I have? And I’m still in a worse position than they are. At least they have their own house, they have their own vehicles. But it inspired me to tell their story.
How did you decide to make some of the artistic decisions that you did for the film? For instance, shooting it in black and white, the music and the overall edgy tone. There’s nothing shy about this work. It’s like, if we’re going to talk about sex, we’re going to talk about sex.
That’s right. But that’s what we do in real life in person. We do that, even if it’s in the privacy of our own homes. So when we go into documentary form, why is it watered down when we’re all doing it in private? It just seems really reductive, and it doesn’t feel fulfilling.
And the black and white, I shot it because it represents truth. It’s just simple, but it’s also classy, classic and timeless, and it looks really elevated. And I thought that dichotomy with the girls, with their street personas and their lingo, that it’d be great to have these girls in a raw form shot in black and white.
What do you think is something that has been historically left out of the conversation regarding sex workers that made it even more important to include in this film?
Well, the fact that they’re doing it. And there’s a lot of trans girls that are public figures or celebrities that are still having to do sex work because it’s hard for them to get jobs.
I don’t think most people would assume or know that.
Oh yeah, it’s the truth. So these girls are really breaking that old narrative that we are OK, or we are fine because we dress in gowns, or we have a great wig. But the truth is, a lot of girls, a lot of trans women, have to subject themselves to sex work, and that’s the reality.
I mentioned the rich storytelling in “Kokomo City,” and there are some really great moments but also some devastatingly real-talk moments. What’s something that is said during the doc that has stuck with you?
The fact that during some of their calls, some of the sex workers tried to blackmail the clients, or rob them, and that was a shocker. But I’m not surprised because sometimes girls feel like they’re not getting paid enough, or maybe they feel like the guy is going to gyp them from pay. So it’s all these details and possibilities that can happen when a trans woman puts herself in these situations or in the hands of these men. It’s unsettling.
What do you hope this doc conveys about the way Black trans women sex workers are perceived?
This film is about Black trans women, but it’s also about Black people. How we treat each other and the lack of love for each other. So I hope that it’s a wakening for Black people as a community. And I hope there’s a level of shame that comes with this film for some Black people that feel like they could have done or should do more to get to know trans people or be kind to trans people.
Are you finding that these women are being accepted more than you expected them to be?
Yeah. Because a lot of times people, especially in the media, they like to create this narrative that trans women are against Black women, and Black women don’t like trans women. And it’s been more Black women who are championing this film than anything. I’m so shocked, to be honest with you. They’re so supportive and like, “Oh my god, I love this film. This has to go.” And so, yeah, this is thrilling.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Chris Azzopardi is the Editorial Director of Pride Source Media Group and Q Syndicate, the national LGBTQ+ wire service. He has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.